AAS Statement on the President's Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Request

Adopted 12 March 2015

Investments in scientific discovery lay the groundwork needed to secure America’s future economic prosperity and a higher quality of life for our nation’s citizens. It is crucial that the government make these investments a priority as our economy continues to recover if we are to compete globally. The study of the universe drives technology development that contributes to US national and economic security, captures the public’s imagination, and serves as a disproportionately important gateway science attracting students from diverse backgrounds to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is troubled by the lack of priority placed on scientific discovery in the president’s FY 2016 budget request, including a proposed 2% cut for the astronomical sciences. This cut is set against the backdrop of a budget that proposes to increase total discretionary spending by 7% above FY 2015 appropriated levels (and FY 2016 budget caps). The AAS does appreciate that the FY 2016 request for the astronomical sciences reflects an increase over past administration proposals, but the compounding impact of another year of cuts would have lasting negative consequences and further erode US leadership in this field.

The astronomical science community has a long history of producing prioritized visions for the field via “decadal surveys” from the National Research Council. These reports require difficult, consensus-based choices and serve to maximize the scientific return on the public’s investment by guiding federal budget priorities in the astronomical sciences within an environment of highly constrained resources. Over just the past year, decadal-survey prioritized missions and facilities have enabled US researchers to discover potentially habitable Earth-like planets around other stars, orbit a dwarf planet in the outer solar system for the first time, observe fireworks from the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy, and better predict energetic outbursts from the Sun that have serious implications for power and communications systems on Earth.

Dramatic research results such as these, made possible by previous federal investments, are met with flat or declining budget requests that force unhealthy trade-offs between breakthrough facilities and the research grant programs required to fully exploit them. The unrestricted competitive grant programs at the NSF and NASA have seen proposal award rates — an imperfect but useful indicator of the adequacy of a competitive grant program’s funding — steadily decline for a number of years, with many productive research groups around the country now at a tipping point. Increasing numbers of top new scientists and engineers trained at American universities are choosing to pursue their careers in research and innovation abroad, reversing a multidecade trend started when Albert Einstein first came to the US. This budget does little to address this mounting problem. There is a serious long-term threat to the nation’s international competitiveness as our long-standing leadership position in many areas of science is lost to other countries where very different investment decisions are being made.

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD)

The AAS is concerned that while the administration’s proposal would increase the NASA top-line budget by 3% — well below the overall proposed 7% increase in discretionary spending — little of the increase would flow to SMD. In fact, SMD’s astronomical science divisions in aggregate would be cut by almost 4%. The proposed budget for FY 2016 and future years would require already funded missions to be canceled before the end of their scientifically productive lives and would underinvest in the research grants that enable our community to maximize the scientific return on federal investment in SMD’s missions. A number of top-priority decadal-survey recommendations such as the modest Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate (DRIVE) initiative in the Heliophysics Division continue to be delayed in this budget.

We also continue to have concerns about the administration’s proposals for SMD’s education and public outreach activities. The FY 2016 budget supports a consolidated program within SMD, which we support in principle, but the proposed funding level is only half the amount appropriated in FY 2015 and prior years for these activities. The AAS shares the administration’s goal of a more effective and efficient STEM education portfolio but disagrees with such steep budget reductions before the impact of the newly consolidated program can be properly evaluated.

Within this overall troubling budget outlook for SMD, there are a number of positive elements: support for high-priority flagship missions (James Webb Space Telescope, Magnetospheric Multiscale mission, Mars 2020 rover, and Solar Probe Plus) and a steady cadence of cost-capped, competed missions in the Astrophysics Explorer and Planetary Discovery budget lines. The Society also appreciates the administration’s support for beginning formulation of a cost-effective flagship mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and its continued commitment to pre-formulation investments in the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

The AAS appreciates NSF’s continued commitment to building cutting-edge telescopes through the Major Research Equipment and Facility Construction account and growing the Mid-Scale Innovations Program (MSIP). However, we note that while the NSF would receive a 5% increase under the request, the Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) directorate would increase by only 2%, and the Astronomical Sciences division by just 1%. With increasing operations costs for new facilities coming online and an overwhelming demand for MSIP grants, this request would lead to a 2% reduction in the core competitive research grant programs that allow the astronomical user community to capitalize on federal investment in new and existing facilities and instrumentation.

A recent NSF report listed a number of important priorities from the latest astrophysics survey that NSF is unable to implement given the Astronomical Sciences Division’s ongoing funding constraints. These lost opportunities ranged from exciting new large- and medium-sized facilities to modest augmentations to research grant and advanced technologies and instrumentation programs.

Department of Energy’s Office of Science

The AAS appreciates the administration’s support for the DoE’s Cosmic Frontier program, including full funding to keep the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope camera project on track as NSF continues construction of the telescope, and initial fabrication support for the high-priority Dark Energy Survey Instrument.

As the budget process moves forward over the coming months, the AAS looks forward to working with the Congress and the administration to ensure robust and sustained investment in scientific discovery. Together we can forge a brighter future for the scientific research enterprise and our country as a whole.